Two flowers. One filled with colour, radiance, vibrancy. One wilted, wrinkled, drooping. One seeming to express fullness, life. The other lifeless.
Just looking at these two images we can experience energy. And if we consider our own experience of energy, there are times we feel full of life, energy and also times where we feel lifeless, depleted of energy. What is this energy? How can we capitalize on it?
Energy has been identified and labelled in various ways... scientists define energy in terms of potential energy and kinetic energy. Energy cannot be destroy, but it can be transferred or transformed. When we exercise, move around and burn calories, we are transforming chemical energy to produce kinetic energy to enable the muscles to contract and electrical energy to enervate the nervous system. When we use the kinetic energy it converts to heat or thermal energy. The chemical energy we are transforming is derived from the foods we eat, the air we breathe.
Grade 4 - my first foray into gymnastics. I had been staying after school, learning how to do cartwheels and front flips, balance on the balance beam and I was impressed with my own performance. The competition day arrived and we moved through the various elements. When I got to the floor routine, I stood at the front of the mat, took the required steps and planted my hands to flip. My feet went up and over, I rotated up to standing and then my body kept moving, the momentum propelling my upper body out of balance. Needless to say, I did not get the first place ribbon.
I did learned something that day, not that I understood the science of it. I understood the impact that nervous energy has on our skillful use of kinetic energy. I was so nervous about doing well, the electrical impulses of the nervous system produced too much kinetic energy, too big a muscle contraction and I wasn't prepared to stop that force at the end of the flip.
So how do we manage nervous energy?
In the context of this kinetic energy we use, and electrical energy we require to execute movements, learning how to manage this energy can make or break our performance. We can eat healthy foods, get good recovery and rest to manage our kinetic energy, but the electrical impulses of the brain are nonstop. The rate of stimulation of the electrical impulses affects the 'mental state' and the autonomic nervous system of the body. The autonomic nervous system is made up of the fight or flight (sympathetic) system and the rest and digest (parasympathetic) nervous system. In rest there is a balance in the activation of both systems. Your body is not digesting food, nor is it climbing 5.12. Alert and awake. The mind is at rest, not ruminating about something or concentrating hard on some problem.
The brain consumes a large amount of energy to just rest. Typically the amount of energy for the brain to function does not change, but where in the brain the energy is consumed does based on the processing that is happening. For example, to smell things requires energy to divert to the area of the brain that discerns smells. To see, moves energy to another area of the brain to process what we are seeing.
All this activity is done through neurons (nerve cells) sending electrical impulses (electrical energy). The activity can be detected with electroencephalography (EEG) measuring the speed of the brain wave frequency.
What the heck does all this have to do with energy?
The body systems never turn off until of course you die. But they do need recovery - a time to return to rest, or what is called homeostasis.
Homeostasis is the ability to maintain a steady state around a set point. For example, you have a resting heart rate... when the heart rate goes up, the nervous system responds increasing respiration, you breathe more to attempt to bring in more oxygen to generate kinetic energy. However, when you stop moving, the breath rate and heart rate move back to a resting heart rate level. If you get cold, the body shivers to maintain body temperature.
In the gymnastic competition, I was on high alert - the sympathetic nervous system was ON! It was go time. Beta waves were active, probably on the high end of the frequency. This means my body started secreting adrenaline to fuel the physical activity... giving me too much energy and resulting in too much spring in my flip. You may well have experienced this sitting for an exam - so much nervous energy you can't focus because the body is diverting blood flow to your limbs, so you can run away from this stressful situation.
Have you had that experience where you couldn't sleep because you couldn't turn off your thoughts? That was trying to sleep with high frequency beta waves. To reduce beta waves, one needs to try to slow the brain waves. This is where calming music that meets the brain frequency can have a calming affect. Or smells that stimulate a more relaxed state help.
Conversely, have you had the situation of not feeling energized, awake? We usually reach for some caffeine, however, we could also choose to increase the speed of brain waves by tapping into the sensory experience. Rub the palms together and create heat, place the warm palms over the eyes, stimulating the eyes. Then notice what you see - the colour, the texture.
We can change our brain waves with external stimuli as mentioned above. One of the most common things I hear is, "I love climbing, I cannot think about anything else, like homework or exams. It makes me feel better." When you climb, you move the body - kinetic energy, electrical energy is used to stimulate muscles and problem solve. This still has you in beta waves, AND you are now using the exercise to manage your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. An experienced climber typically is not over-activating the fight or flight response because they have familiarity. A new climber usually has more fight or flight and this will not have the same reduction of beta wave stimulation.
If you are an experienced climber, you will have had the experience of being able to climb with less beta wave activation when you have all your moves memorized or the route is so easy, you are not problem solving, it is simply moving naturally and the brain begins to calm, or put another way, the brain waves slow down. Until you find something new to try to figure out and you turn on rational problem solving.
A cautionary consideration -- the brain is always regulating our experience - processing, planning. To work with the brain, you need to meet the functioning where it is. For example, if I am ruminating about something negative that happened, I try Byron Katie's worksheet and turnarounds. Why? I am meeting my ruminating thoughts where they are (beta waves) BEFORE I start trying to move them into a more creative and open state of processing (alpha waves). If I can't sleep, I try to focus on moving my breath in a specific count, or listen to calming music. I will look out at the moonlit sky and take in the vastness of space - reframing my focus from what I am ruminating on to a different problem solving, or contemplation.
I enjoy kriya meditations because moving from beta brain wave function to theta waves is hard. Kriya meditations usually coax me along with visualizations and calm the mind while asking it to continue to do some processing. Eventually the body is calm, the mind is calm and the mind can let go of the need to respond to all the stimuli - the sounds nearby, or sensing other people. Then it can drop into deep meditation.
Conversely, if I am groggy and sleepy, (theta waves) I bring awareness to the five senses... what am I seeing, what am I tasting, hearing, feeling (alpha to beta waves). By stimulating the sensory processing in a different area of the brain, I move toward more complex task slowly.
Give these things aforementioned activities a try and reflect on the experience. Next week we will dive into how these brain waves are related to the flow state - or the athletic zone.